Fake encampments spring up in Haiti


Scattered along the potholed dirt road that leads to some of the city’s nicest homes as well as to southern Haiti’s most posh hotel are the most stomach-wrenching sites in Jacmel.

A series of formerly empty lots have grown crowded in recent weeks with clusters of home-made teepees held up by anemic tree trunks, dried palm leaves, fraying tarps and bed sheets.

There is no order to these austere encampments, no signs any aid groups have visited, nor are there showers or latrines.

During the day, sparsely clothed men traipse around the sites with machetes, chopping once in a while at branches; women with babies sit together in the shade. At night though, residents can be hard to track down – peel back the sheets hung for doorways on the teepees and the tiny shelters are often empty.

That’s because nobody really lives in them.

Known as “ghost” or “phantom camps” among international aid groups, fake encampments designed to capitalize on the overflow of handouts coursing through southeastern Haiti are springing up as the government grows more vocal about limiting the flow of aid.

It recently ordered a stop to both free food distributions and handouts in camps for the internally displaced in hopes that doing so would dilute the culture of dependency it fears has deepened since the earthquake last January.

Signs of this are everywhere in Jacmel, where officials suspect that hundreds of residents registered in the city’s official camps have rural land they could return to and rebuild on.

They resist leaving the camps for fear of missing a big handout. The advent of ghost camps is a continuation on the same theme.

In Jacmel, primitive-looking camps displaying horrific living conditions have been growing along the unpaved perimeter roads that connect to the hotels in the city known to house aid groups. A small handful of people who claim to be residents populate the camps during the day and, when convoys pass by, lookouts alert others nearby to return to the site. With lightening speed, the community then launches into a theatrical display of hardship aimed at persuading aid workers their camp was somehow overlooked by those responsible for earlier emergency tent and food distributions.

“We’ve never had any chance to participate in what’s going on,” complained Jean-Jacques Augustin, a man who said he was a spokesman for one of the sparsely populated camps on a recent afternoon.

“It’s a rich neighbourhood – those who are less fortunate have been forgotten,” he said.

The story is not unfathomable: No aid worker or government employee in Jacmel would deny that distributions have been plagued by confusion, inconsistency, overlapping between organizations.

But as Mr. Augustin described his plight, dozens of “residents” suddenly appeared in the camp and began gathering up dried palm leaves or chopping at long grass with machetes. Several of them worked with increased fervour while a photographer was at work.

When the camera was focused on other “residents,” people who had already been photographed put down their tools. When a reporter visited the camp later that evening only three “residents” remained at the site.

“They’re not really camps,” said Frantz Magellan Pierre-Louis, a spokesman for the city of Jacmel who has been heavily involved in monitoring shelter and camp-related issues. “Some of them are just imposters … looking for opportunities to get some of what is being distributed. We’re starting to separate the good from the bad,” he said.

Since January, city and international aid officials have been conducting ongoing registration drives to figure out who is living in camps for displaced people (both small and large) and why they remain. It is through those assessments that officials have figured out some families have their own land – which could make them candidates for free, semi-permanent shelter constructions – but have chosen to remain in camps to stay on handout lists.

“It’s normal,” said Astrid Arne, a camp management specialist with the International Organization for Migration, a multinational migration agency. “If people think there is something to receive – and people here need everything – even if they can live at a property back home or in a tent on their own property … they will stay,” she said.

To ensure basic needs are being met, analyses called “gap assessments” are conducted regularly among shelter-focused groups to ensure that no areas of the city have been left out.

Nearly four months after the earthquake, some aid representatives argue that it is unfathomable that any residents of the city of Jacmel were completely missed during the distribution phase.

“These are ghost camps,” said Barrie Sampson, a Salvation Army official who spent nearly two months distributing aid in areas of Jacmel. One of his group’s early focal points was to address regions at risk of being overlooked.

“People still have tents in stock,” he said, pointing out there is no shortage of aid supplies in Jacmel.

One sign that needs are under control is the increasing expanse of the black market for tents. Three months ago it was nearly impossible to buy a camping tent in Jacmel; today a small tent can be purchased for 2,500 Haitian Gourdes ($65 Canadian).

Still, many aid workers, particularly inexperienced volunteers arriving for short stints in Jacmel, are hooked by the ghost camps. One man from Virginia recently paid out of pocket for as many tarps as he could find to donate to camp leaders at a site near the Oxana hotel.

Rogue donators have incensed shelter experts with the United Nations, who have been ordered to stop the official dissemination of tents. Hikaru Kitai, a Red Cross employee appointed to oversee all shelter-related aid efforts in Jacmel, said people and groups who continue to give out tents and tarps – including to “residents” of ghost camps – are effectively slowing efforts to rebuild the nation.

“They’re making people more dependent,” she said. “We’re really trying to move people away from the tents … so they can go back to normal life.”